Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Teaching Creativity

In both of my main classes, theory and musicianship, I incorporate creativity through composition and improvisation activities. This creativity is a crucial aspect of being a musician, regardless of the primary role a musician will have in life. I have a pretty good handle on how to coach students through improvisation, but with stylistic composition I sometimes have trouble getting some students to treat the assignment as an act of creation. Today I gave the sophomores their semester-long composition assignment, and we practiced composing a period together. Many of the students were joyful in creating a new work, or excited about the idea of composing their own works. But there were some who were scared or reluctant about the project. So, how do you light the creative spark in these types of students?


Phil said...

I'm surprised that you're not having the opposite problem. I know that I've always been scared about improvisation because I can't shake the idea that it is an indicator of all the technique I have acquired on my instrument along with my understanding of applying music theory (which is doubly intimidating if it's jazz theory). I guess the composition project has similar issues, though.

The only time I had to do a composition project in my undergraduate studies, I was able to face it fearlessly because we wrote 12-tone pieces for three instruments. Obviously we had to put thought into our texture and all that, but it took the pressure off knowing that you weren't trying to write a "toe-tapper".

In my piece, I used a row that, when used backwards, had the first 6 or 7 pitches of "Giant Steps" in order (so to quote the first 7 measures of the tune, all I had to do was have someone play it starting on a certain pitch and have the next instrument play it transposed). Not sure why this is relevant, except maybe that I found "inspiration" in a project like this because I combined an idea I had with the technique of using a 12-tone row.

Stephen Nachmanovitch's book Free Play addresses the idea of learning to improvise (in a general context, not a jazz one per se) by proposing that you play a 1-2 minute improvised piece that has a beginning, middle, and end. Just about anyone, with the right limits on how many pitches or how many ideas that explore, should be able to handle that. When I find extra time to practice (ha!) and after reading Nachmanovitch's book, I'd like to practice improvising 5-20 minutes everyday. Alas, no one would ever think to ask for this on an audition, yeah?

Scott said...

My difficulties arise from my own training. I've been improvising since I was 12 in jazz, aleatory, free improv, Renaissance embellishment and Baroque ornamentation. But I've only had limited training in composition. So I am more comfortable with improvisation than composition, personally. I'm going to read the Nachmanovitch, now that you've recommended it.

Phil said...

I'm realizing now that I thought you said the STUDENTS were having the trouble with the assignment, not that you were having trouble getting students working on it the right way. My apologies, but I'm sure you realized that I would have no reason to critique or comment on your teaching ability/style! :-P

I very much enjoyed Free Play and feel like it had relevance beyond improvisation. I hope to purchase it and read it again soon.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of blending this discussion into the other one, let me mention that the problem you discuss in the present post is the very thing that gets me so wound up about the importance of a good theoretical framework.

To many people, composition is an utterly mysterious process; the purpose of music pedagogy is to demystify it. Some theoretical frameworks help with this task, others get in the way. Many traditional theoretical ideas (not only harmony but also much of traditional "form and analysis") seem like the kind of things you would come up with if you were listening purely passively, without the slightest clue about how one might actually create a work "out of nothing".

The first step in developing a "creative spark" is to listen to music like a composer. The student should constantly be asking him- or herself, "How could I have composed this piece myself?" I don't mean "How would I have done it differently?"; rather, I mean, "What thought process would my mind have to have gone through in order for me to have ended up writing the exact same score the actual composer did?" (In my opinion, this is always how analysis should be approached -- for the answers to virtually all other questions addressed by analysis follow from the answer to this one.)

This is why I think it is so important for the vocabulary of music theory to be suggestive of a composer's thought process. (Note my choice of words: "suggestive of a..." rather than "indicative of the...".) Contrast the Westergaardian operations, which sound like the kind of things you might do during the compositional process (delay a note here, borrow a pitch there) , with the constructs of harmonic theory, which sound like fully-formed entities whose provenance is shrouded in mystery ("Neapolitan sixth chord", "I-IV-V-I progression").

I don't know what the specific issues of your students are, but it might be worth considering the possibility that what makes composition so intimidating for some of them is that the elements of music seem opaque.

Scott said...

How much tonal composition have you done, James? The issues of which note to delay or arpeggiate, which passing motions that will sound good or sound bad, can be very intimidating if the student doesn't have knowledge of harmony. It isn't impossible, but I posit that many people do not find harmony as opaque as you do.

As for the purpose of analysis, I can think of others, such as finding alternative performance strategies, explaining how you understand and hear the piece, or for data used in constructing a meta theory. But your point about analyzing a piece as a composer is a good one. We did do some of that in class, but I might emphasize more of it for some reluctant students.

Anonymous said...

My experience with teaching composition comes from a public school perspective but I found a lot of success starting off with open ended sound exploration as a way to spark creative solutions to musical problems. R. Murray Schafer's books have tons of springboards for ways to spark creative thinking in terms of sound. Also, if you can get your hands on it John Paynter's book "Sound and Structure" (unfortunately out of print) gives a lot of excellent ideas. His book "Sound and Silence" is supposed to be great as well though I haven't read that yet.

I don't know if you were using computers with the class but the use of various composing and sound sequencing software helps give immediate feedback to students so they can hear what they are composing, make revisions, experiment in an ongoing process. Also, starting away from notation may also lead to some sparks that can eventually be put on paper. Also were they composing individually or in groups? Group composition brings with it a whole set of additional issues to deal with but also opens up many possibilities for creative thinking and problem solving and usually results in a lot of compromises but idea generation from the back and forth between the members of the group.

The book "Why and How to Teach Music Composition: A New Horizon for Music Education," edited by Maud Hickey, has a collection of papers related to teaching composition. It is from a music education perspective is a nice starting place for additional research into how people go about approaching composition in classrooms (again in a public school context but much of it is transferable to higher ed). The second chapter in the book covers "Creativity". In that chapter, the article "Creative thinking in the context of musical composition" has some particularly helpful things to think about.

Finally, the International Society for Improvised Music is having its second conference in December. The conference last year had many sessions dealing with issues of creativity and how to get people to improvise that are not familiar with engaging in it. A lot of the ideas would work in any music classroom dealing with composition and improvisation. The ISIM website is

I'd be interested to hear eventually how the students end up progressing in their composing and what ends up working for you and them!